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Totternhoe Stone Quarry According to Pehr Kalm

Totternhoe Stone Quarry by George Shepherd 1813 [X254/88/249]
Totternhoe Stone Quarry by George Shepherd 1813 [X254/88/249]

In 1748 a Swede named Pehr Kalm visited England and recorded his impressions. Whilst staying at Great Gaddesden [Hertfordshire] he made a visit to Totternhoe, his account, published in Sweden in 1753 was translated by and republished by Joseph Lucas in 1892. His description of Totternhoe is given below.

We went afterwards to a place where the white stone is hewn, which is here called Freestone, and of which churches and other houses &c., are built. The place where it is taken out is one of the highest chalk hills in this district, situated in Bedfordshire just 6 miles north of Little Gaddesden. The nearest village to it is called Tatternel, after which the mine or stone-pit, likewise got its name.

In some places these chalk hills were long-sloping, in other places steeper. In some places the ploughed fields were on the top of all, where the chalk seems white enough, yet not quite so white as chalk, doubtless because it has from time to time been mixed with all sorts of different manures which have been carried on to the fields. Here there were ploughed fields in many places on the top of these chalk hills, when just under the same, many fathoms into the hill there were large 'drifts' or 'adits', where they hewed and dug up this stone.

When the hill was observed, on a side where it was steep and all the grass sward was off, so that the clear white chalk showed itself to the open day, it then lay mostly in this order:

On the top was the grass sward, with the soil immediately under it about 1 foot thick, or sometimes a little less…

After that the ordinary chalk came on, which however was blended with the harder kind of chalk which is here called Hurlok, and is so hard that one cannot write with it. The deeper one gets the more he meets with this Hurlok, and less and less of ordinary loose chalk, till after 3 or 4 fathoms perpendicular depth there is nothing else than bare Hurlok.

Among the chalk and Hurlok, flints next to never appear, so that flint is here very rare. When one comes still farther down, this Hurlok begins to be mingled with Freestone, when the Hurlok, as one gets deeper, diminishes more and more, while the Freestone on the other hand increases, until very low down one sees nothing else but bare Freestone.

This freestone is dug deep under the hills. Here were three places, where they had formerly hewn the same, and where adits down at the foot of the hill went far under the earth, or the chalk hill. I was as far in as the ends of two of them, one of which was longer than the other. The former went as far as 40 poles - 660 feet under ground.

At the entrance into the hill the same was walled round for about 12 feet, as a door to this Freestone, to prevent the Hurlok on the steep side of the hill from slipping down and closing up the entrance again. But after one gets farther in, it was not any longer walled, but the roof and walls consisted entirely of Freestone, just as nature had set it there. When anyone wished to enter, a light which was carried in the hand to light oneself with, was lighted at the entrance of the adit. For after one had come 6 or 7 fathoms into the mine, there was no more daylight, but it was coal-black darkness as of night. The breadth of these adits under ground was for the most part 6 feet, the height 7 feet. Still the breadth and height were sometimes a little greater, sometimes again somewhat less. The water now trickled down everywhere through the roof, or vault of the adits from the hill above, which was said to come from the snow and rain which had collected on the hill in the winter-time, but in the summer, according to the unanimous account of the workmen, this is everywhere as dry as it is on a dry highway road. The carls [workmen] avail themselves of this water which is filtered down when they would sharpen their tools with which they perform their work, but for nothing else. Both roof and walls were very uneven, for sometimes the sides projected, &c., sometimes went in hollows, according as it occurred to them to hew the stone, and its natural divisions. The adits into the chalk hill went mostly horizontally, yet they sloped a little down in some places. On both sides of the main adits there were other adits, both ad angulos acutos, rectos et obtuso [at acute and obtuse angles, so that if the entrances of all these cross-galleries had been open, this would have been to one unacquainted with them the worst Labyrinth and maze there could possibly be, but these adits were now mostly filled up with the loose bits of Freestone which had been broken off in the process of hewing.

The stone divided itself here in the mine all in cracks or fissures which all went from above downwards, more or less perpendicularly, but no fissures ever ran horizontally or very obliquely, which was the unanimous account of the workmen. These fissures were sometimes broader, 6 inches wide or more, sometimes quite narrow, but nearly all very deep, so that a stick 4 feet long could be stuck into them without reaching the end of them. These stones clear each other somewhat perpendicularly ad anglos rectos, or as though the whole of the lower part of the chalk hill inside, as it were, consisted of four-sided pillars, placed perpendicularly, yet of unequal thickness, that is to say, that some of these square pillars were larger, some less. Similarly the sides also are not of the same breadth, so that when on one pillar all four sides are of equal breadth, on another only the two opposite sides may be of the same breadth - e.g., two of the opposite sides may be 6 feet broad, but again the two other sides standing opposite to one another are nor more than 4 feet, 2 feet or 18 inches broad, and so forth. One does not here expect an absolute mathematical equality in breath of the four, or of the two sides which stand opposite to each other, but one is content if only they are somewhat about the same breadth, Thus these stones naturally clear each other perpendicularly on all dies, and form as it were perpendicularly sides of cubes and oblongs, but they are never naturally divided horizontally, but all horizontal division must be effected artificially. When the carls wish to have a stone broken horizontally of any perpendicular height or thickness, they hew with their picks a horizontal line where they wish it, by which they spring it loose horizontally to any thickness they please.

The loosened pieces are afterwards carried out on a low wagon or truck, which instead of four wheels has two rollers, of ash, at each end. The diameter of each roller is nearly 1 foot. The body of the wagon is made of solid oak timbers. This wagon, with the stone which lies upon it, is drawn by the carls along the adit till they get it out to the day, and if they afterwards wish to have it up the hill at the entrance of the mine, it is wound up along the road with a windlass, and is so drawn to the place where they intend to hew and work at it.

The stone, down in the mine, and when it was first hewn, was of a grey or clay colour, and so soft that it could be cut with a knife as easily as a hardened or dry pot-clay. Similarly one could then with the hands and fingers break it in pieces, provided the pieces were not too thick; but when it had come up to the day, and lain for a time in the open air, it became very white, although not so white as chalk: for it could be seen that there was a considerable difference, if one wrote with a piece of chalk on a wall built of this stone; which I tried, and the man who had the direction of that mine, also showed me. Similarly it has also the property that after it has come into the open air it always hardens more and more as it gets older and comes to lie longer in the open day. Hence it is, that as soon as it comes out of the mine or stone-pit, it is worked by the carls, while it is still soft, for any purpose they please and which it can be used for.

The use of this freestone, and the purposes it is used for, are various. The principal is to build houses of it, when it has first been hewn here at the mine into a four sided oblong form. Likewise it is used for window-frames and door-posts, and arches over fire-places, windows, and doors, for several kinds of pedestals and pillars, the bottoms of baking-ovens, and other such things. Most of the churches in this district are entirely built of this stone, which indicates the great age of this stone-mine. A quantity of it is carried to various gentlemen's estates round to build houses and other things. The small pieces which are struck off and chipped in the mine, when the stone is broken loose, are used, partly to be carried on to the roads to fill up the deep wagon and cart-ruts; partly they are carried home by some farmers, brayed into fine dust mixed with water, and worked into a cement, of which the floors of malt houses and 'lodges', or the part of the barns where they thrash the corn, are made, because this, thus prepared, binds very strongly together. I asked the carls whether lime can be burned from this stone? They all answered no, and added that one may burn it as long as he likes but he will never make lime of it - which I leave there. Likewise they said that it is no good for laying as a floor, because it softens and is reduced to a sediment by water which comes to stand upon it. The tools and other things which the miners use here at their work are the following: - Inside the mine, where the stone is hewn loose, there are used only a pick, iron-wedges, and a mallet. The picks or pickaxes exactly resemble the picks which we use in Sweden to hack mill-stones with, only that these English ones are very sharp, and are often sharpened. The iron-wedges and mallets are of the ordinary kinds. They avail themselves of the before-described wagon to carry the larger stones out of the mine; but small bits are carried out with a wheel-barrow. All the labour in the mine is performed with a light, because not the least daylight can get to the places where they work, but when the light is put out or taken away, it is pitch dark. After they have got the stone to the place they wish, they hew it with the aforementioned picks, of which some are larger, some smaller, some are broader, others narrower. With these the stone is hewn tolerably even and flat on the sides. If anyone wishes to have a very broad stone, or any other narrower stone in half, a long saw is used, with which one or two carls saw it asunder, just as they please. To make the sides even, and the corners square, a ruler or straight-edge and set square are used. To finally make all quite plain and smooth, they us an iron scraper or rimer, with which they scrape or shave it flat.

Down in the mine which went under ground, were set here and there of the walls of the adits fast stuck shoots of Wild Thyme, sweet briar &c., about which the carls related that if these were set there fresh in the summer time, they will remain there green and as fresh, and smelling as sweet in a couple of months' time.

Some whom curiosity had driven down or into this mine had written their names with the date on the walls.

I asked the carls whether those who continually labour in these mines are affected by any particular illness above others? They answered that they for the most part get to enjoy good health, and are not aware that they are exposed to more illnesses or cramps than others. It is also very seldom that any stone falls down by itself from the roof into the adits. They remembered only one unlucky accident, which had been timed in such a manner that a carl had been killed by a stone which fell from the roof and crushed him to death. This may doubtless have been the god-forgotten man of whom Mr. Ellis tells in his "Shepherd's Sure Guide".

The carls also said that they had not remarked any sign of approaching weather from this mine.

The place and entrance to the mine was well on for 20 fathoms (120 feet) perpendicular depth below the highest summit of the chalk hill, if not more.

In several places appeared unsightly large pits, which now on the bottom were overgrown with grass, where they in former times had hewn up this stone. The workmen told us that in one and each of the same pits there is a hole or adit in under ground, but that the entrances to them were now fallen in. The deepest hole which was 40 poles into the hill where they were now working, and in which I was, was said to be over 500 years old. The whole mine was said to have been worked for 1,000 years. There was a house or two here built of this stone thatched with straw, in which the workmen took their meals, kept their tools, and worked in bad weather.